“In a manner of speaking, I am sentimental about my childhood - not my own particular childhood, but the civilisation which I grew up in and which is now, I suppose, just about at its last kick.” ~George Orwell, Coming Up for Air.
It’s strange to look back on the middle of the last decade; ignoring the so-called resurgence of popularity of bands like Hot Hot Heat and The Futureheads (clearly the writer had never been to a student indie night. Ever.), there’s still a strange rush to be had when I hear the songs that soundtracked my teenage years. And, in retrospect, a more crucial LP than the work of The Libertines or any other London chancers, was Happiness in Magazines - that fleeting moment in 2004 when Graham Coxon was, single-handedly, the best punk band in the country.
Magazines is the kind of record people in their early twenties should cling to, much like the class of ‘94 do with Parklife; a snotty barrage of power-trash, it had hooks galore and boasted perfectly-deployed hipster put-downs (“Your records are all boring ‘cause you’re cool as hell”), endearingly clumsy mash notes about being “fired up with biological urge in my belly”, and all other manner of teenage tropes that a man as old as Coxon (who was, then, an ancient 35) had no place writing. Its follow-up, Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, was also perfectly timed - we were all old enough to get proper girlfriends and feel proper feelings, while 2009’s The Spinning Top was a much-needed moment of reflection, albeit one overshadowed by some Britpop band or other getting back together.
And now comes A+E, another ostensibly one-man effort (Top was loaded with folksy collaborators like Bert Jansch and the mighty Robyn Hitchcock), and a return to the crazier climes of Our Graham’s early records - thanks, in no small part, to Golden D (and Think Tank) producer Ben Hillier returning to duty. Together, they’ve come up with a mish-mash of the best bits of Coxon’s career to date - the dusty analogue machinations of Coxon’s pre-pop days, filtered through the unthinkable production techniques of a record like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Which, for the little sense that comparison makes, works a fucking treat.
The potential floor-fillers are all haphazard and disjointed enough to make you question yourself every time you try to dance. The two lines of lead single ‘What’ll It Take?’ - “What’ll it take to make you people dance? I don’t really know what’s wrong with me!” - sound strangely confrontational over the song’s analogue arpeggios, while ‘Meet+Drink+Pollinate’ occupies a sound you could only describe as detuned, deformed disco. It’s this avenue that provides the album’s most interesting material, if not necessarily its best; ‘City Hall’ - a strangely alluring kraut-grunge hybrid that takes its template from the interminable ending of Illegal Speeds’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Out’ - sees Graham kick out the sax for what may be the first time in his solo career, while the seven-minute drone of ‘Knife in the Cast’ harks back to early Blur b-sides (where psychedelia faced off against shoegaze) and somehow manages to be both interminable and beautiful.
Still, Coxon’s pop side hasn’t entirely deserted him, especially come side two, and makes for the record’s most immediately gratifying moments; ‘Seven Naked Valleys’ is a stormer, all desert-drums, pseudo-Roxy Music sax and cryptic/nonsensical lyrics, which rhyme the song’s title with “making me doolally” in the way that only Graham Coxon could pull off. Closer ‘Ooh, Yeh Yeh’ does everything with an acoustic guitar, which were unheard of on the last album - think Nirvana’s Unplugged or the Manics’ ‘Removables’ - complete with some classic slacker vocals and a classically atonal Coxon guitar solo that rips the track in two. Meanwhile, album highlight ‘Running for Your Life’ is a pure, visceral rock ‘n’ roll thrill, telling the tale of a victimised London hipster who gets the shit kicked out of him by some unspecified northern bovver boys, with a gleefully malicious cry of “Get back down the M1, ‘cause we don’t like you!”
Graham Coxon hasn’t sounded this loose or unpredictable in years; sure, no one saw The Spinning Top coming but, risky as it was, there was too much order imposed within its grooves. A+E sounds like its title - it’s all chaos and pain, but nothing that can’t be easily fixed. It may not find itself streamed out of too many halls of residence corridors, but as far as a middle-aged indie rocker can go to recapturing dirty youthful thrills, it’s a pretty wonderful last kick.